Book review: Robin Fleming, Britain after Rome

Poetry fans:

I will be returning to post poetry or commentary towards the end of this month. In the meantime – enjoy history!

“Historians” – a term commonly extended to include all history graduates or undergraduates – are famous for replying to queries with “That’s not my period”. They can also say, for example, “That’s French history. I know about German history”. Well, in my day a Cambridge history degree demanded that you spread your wings, through time if not through space, before you specialised; but yes, 400 to 1070 a.d. is not my period. Ask me a question about 1603 – 1661, please.

Well, yes, but the collapse of Roman power in Britain around 410 a.d. and the arrival of new, Germanic, peoples and cultures is fascinating. The argument about whether, as used to be assumed when I was a kid, the native Celts were slaughtered or driven out (or at least, the men were), or if self-confident Saxons landed and the locals for the most part accepted new lords and a new language, rages back and forth.

Robin Fleming takes the second position. The book is part of a series, but its approach to me is quite new because she concentrates heavily on social history demonstrated through archaeology (and documents when they become available). I found her explanation of how the economy and culture of Roman Britain collapsed, under pressure from armed attacks (by Picts and Irish as much as Saxons), but well in advance of any widespread “Saxonisation”, I found fascinating and compelling.

As for the Saxonisation (my coinage, not hers), she provides some powerful evidence. Most of the founder stories of the Saxons don’t add up and seem to have been invented centuries later. Early Saxon settlements show little sign of organisation against hostile attack, something that became much commoner centuries later when militant Saxon kingdoms fought one another. It can be shown that some communities switched from Romano-British burial rites to Saxon ones but the Saxons being buried were descended from the Romano-British buried earlier.

I know there are counter-arguments, but her arguments seem convincing. What’s more, I found fascinating her account of how many things we think of as characteristically Saxon arose long after the early Saxon settlements – including the location of many settlements. She’s also powerful in showing how many of the things we traditionally saw as coming in with a jolt at the Norman Conquest were introduced in the three generations or so before 1066; but although the story is said to reach 1070, she does not cover what changes 1066 did bring, for example a sudden exclusion of English-speaking from power and written culture.

She faces a serious difficulty in that her geographical area is Britain, and the story of Scotland in this period is radically different from England. She covers Wales pretty well, even after the area of the Celtic states was reduced to roughly the present boundaries of Wales, but Scotland is heavily underrepresented.

This is a really fascinating book.